Portman’s performance sets a new standard

Jackie

‘Jackie’

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard

Directed by: Pablo Sarrain

Rated: PG-13

 

Less than a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his widow, Jackie, summoned writer Theodore H. White to her Hyannis Port home to discuss her husband’s legacy. The result was a famous essay White composed for Life magazine that is remembered for the famous reference to the Broadway musical “Camelot,” one of the president’s favorites.

This is the basis for Noah Oppenheim’s script and this movie from Chilean director Pablo Lorraine, a remarkable piece of cinema anchored by the stunning performance of Natalie Portman as the title character.

Billie Crudup plays White, who is never referenced in the movie and is listed in the credits as only “the journalist.” Told in broken, non-linear flashbacks as Jackie chain smokes and talks through her grief, the movie moves back and forth through the recent past surrounding the assassination in Dallas and the aftermath.

The impetus for the interview was the former First Lady’s overwhelming desire to control and mandate her husband’s brief legacy before the critics could dictate it for her. To that end, she demanded editorial control over White’s essay, and it was in that interview that the myth of Camelot was born per calculated comments made by Jackie.

Over the decades, so many actresses have taken on the role of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, usually in relation to a feature film or TV miniseries about John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family. Blair Brown, Katie Holmes and more have tried to capture that inimitable Boston accent and whispery voice made known to the American public in her iconic televised tour of the White House, that this movie covers.

Taking all those roles into consideration, no matter how large or small the part, Natalie Portman’s portrayal here will become the definitive one and will earn her another Oscar nomination, if not the big prize.

Aided by hair and makeup that recall her look, Portman also nails the distinctive accent and mannerisms of Jackie Kennedy, but that alone is not necessarily enough. What gives the movie its weight and perspective is Oppenheim’s script, which has already won awards on the film festival circuit. Beginning with the focal point of the White interview and moving through the actual assassination, the behind the scenes confusion regarding the funeral and Jackie’s determination to protect and preserve her husband’s legacy — from the moment Air Force One lifted off from Dallas after Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on the plane. It’s raw, gut wrenching, with a poignancy that recalls the fear and uncertainty of that tragic moment in our nation’s history.

One of the movie’s best scenes results from her confrontation with Jack Valenti (Max Casella), who now reported to Johnson, and the way she coerced him into giving in to her wish to walk the seven blocks from the Capitol to the Cathedral for the funeral ceremony even though the Secret Service was completely against the idea.

These details have all been cited over the years in various books and in White’s own interview notes, which were given to the JFK Library with the wish they not be released until a year after his death. Scribbled down over the four hours they met and talked, White’s observations are most revealing, and Oppenheim has managed to work in much of the actual exchange. For other conversations, it is left to the ages to know if they actually took place or are just the imaginings of Oppenheim, but they feel accurate.

Lorrain has an almost lyrical, poetic approach to his work. Much of this fillm takes place as if in a fugue-like state, much like the way Mrs. Kennedy moved through that week — planning her husband’s funeral with almost no modern precedent, telling her children about their father, and packing and preparing to leave the White House to make way for the Johnsons. His style is uncompromising, and he takes risks both great and small that give the movie its depth and texture.

 

Jackie Kennedy was one of modern history’s most tragic and enigmatic public figures, and for any actress to take on such an icon requires a sense of confidence that doesn’t always come through on screen. Portman has succeeded where so many have not because she she’s all in. It’s not just the pink suit and the pillbox hat. It’s the nuanced anguish on her face, the bewilderment and sorrow she shows us in the unguarded moments and the anger she expresses. Portman sets the bar as high as “Jackie.”

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